Cellist / Conductor  Heinrich  Schiff

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Heinrich Schiff (Cello, Conductor)

Born: November 18, 1951 - Gmunden, Austria

The Austrian cellist and conductor, Heinrich Schiff, began playing piano when he was 6, and took up cello at the age of 10. His major teachers were Tobias Kühne and André Navarra, with whom he shares the qualities of a lean, centered, yet singing tone and a lyrical approach to the instrument. He studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky, one of the great conducting teachers of the time.

Schiff made his debut as a cellist in Vienna and London in 1971 at the age of 20. Since then he has been a regular guest of all leading orchestras, at the big music centers and at the major festivals in Europe, North America and Japan. He has played with such great conductors as Claudio Abbado, Sergiu Celibidache, Riccardo Chailly, Colin Davis, Christoph von Dohnányi, Christoph Eschenbach, Michael Gielen, Bernard Haitink, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Mariss Jansons, Charles Mackerras, Kurt Masur, Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Klaus Tennstedt and Franz Welser-Möst.

Apart from all the principal works of the standard repertoire, contemporary music plays an important role in Heinrich Schiff's artistic work. He frequently collaborates with composers such as Luciano Berio, John Casken, Friedrich Cerha, Michael Gielen, Hans Werner Henze, Ernst Krenek, Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, Matthias Pintscher, Wolfgang Rihm and Hans Zender. He has premiered works of Friedrich Cerha, Hans Werner Henze, Luciano Berio, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Ernst Krenek. At the Salzburg Festival 2006 he performed Johannes Maria Staud's new composition (Segue) with Daniel Barenboim and the Wiener Philharmoniker. With the latter he also gave the premiere of Otto M. Zykan's cello concerto Beethovens Cello conducted by Zubin Mehta.

After a highly acclaimed tour across Europe with the pianist Till Fellner, Schiff appeared in recitals with the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in the 2008-2009 season. He regularly appears in duo recitals with the pianists Polina Leschenko and Martin Helmchen and frequently performs the J.S. Bach solo suites. At the Salzburg Easter Festival 2008 he appeared as soloist with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle, performing Dvorák's Cello Concerto. In June 2008 he appeared with the Alban Berg Quartet on their farewell tour with Schubert's String Quintet C Major, in July with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Alan Gilbert with Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1st Cello Concerto. In August 2008, together with Frank Peter Zimmermann and Christian Zacharias, he was guest at the major European summer festivals.


After building a career as one of the finest cellists to emerge in the last quarter of the 20th century, Schiff also has established himself as an important orchestra conductor. He made his professional debut as a conductor in 1986. He has conducted several leading orchestras of the world, including the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Houston Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra (London), Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Münchner Philharmoniker, Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and Tonhalle Orchestra Zürich. He began conducting opera at the Theatre le Monnaie in Brussels with Die Zauberflöte in December 1992, and Fidelio in September 1993, and Der fliegende Holländer at the Bern Stadttheater in 1994. He was Principal Guest Conductor of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen from 1990 to 1992, and was Artistic Director of the Northern Sinfonia (in England) from 1990 to 1996 and recorded with them for the NMC label. Since 1990 he has also been Guest Conductor of Brucknerorchester Linz. He was Principal Conductor of the Northern Sinfonia from 1996 to 1999 (or 2000). From 1995 to 2001 he was Principal Conductor of the Orchester Musikkollegium Winterthur, and in 1998 he became Principal Guest Conductor of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart. In 2004, he was appointed Chief Conductor of the Wiener Kammerorchester and served in the post from 2005 to 2008. He stood down from the post in 2008 for health reasons.

In the 1980’s Heinrich Schiff began recording extensively. He has released recordings of the main cello repertoire, ranging from Vivaldi and Haydn to Witold Lutosławski and Bernd Alois Zimmermann. His set of complete J.S. Bach Suites won many recording prizes, and his performance of both Dmitri Shostakovich concertos, with the composer's son Maxim Shostakovich conducting, won the Grand Prix du Disque and was found by the Stevenson Classical CD Guide to be the single classical compact disc in its survey that received the largest number of rave reviews from the English-speaking world's music critics.


He won the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis for the Frank Peter Zimmermann's Double Concerto, in which he partnered with Frank Peter Zimmermann under the baton of Wolfgang Sawallisch. There was also widespread critical acclaim for the complete L.v. Beethoven works for cello and piano with Till Fellner, released in 2000.

Heinrich Schiff plays the famous "Mara" Stradivarius made in 1711 and "Sleeping Beauty" made by Montagnana in Venice in 1739.

--  Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 

On the third of July of 1989, I had a busy afternoon doing two full interviews at the Ravinia Festival.  First was pianist Stephen Hough, and then cellist Heinrich Schiff.

We met in the pianist
’s teaching studio, and at the conclusion of the first interview, Hough agreed to let us remain in his room for the second interview. 

Schiff responded to my inquiries, and spoke deeply, with well thought-out ideas and convictions.

Here is that enlightening encounter . . . . . . . . .

schiffBruce Duffie:    You’re a cellist, so you have completely different ideas and problems than pianists, and I have to get coordinated and thinking away from the piano range.

Heinrich Schiff:    Maybe not! 

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???  How are your problems and conflicts and jokes and joys and sorrows the same as a pianist?

HS:    It is true as long as we talk about the problems of having a good instrument.  We certainly have different problems, but we have problems, though that’s probably not what you mean! The musical problem is to deal with text, to do with music, to deal with students, to deal with explanations and with making music visible.  In terms of talking about it and showing what you want to have or what you would like to criticize, I think it’s quite similar with every instrument.

BD:    Then let’s talk about instruments momentarily.  You have your own instrument, or instruments, that you travel with. 

HS:    That’s right.

BD:    Do you always have just the one you like?

HS:    That’s right, yes.

BD:    How long did it take you to find the one that you’re happy with?

HS:    You can put the question differently... how long does it take to play the instrument you are happy with, because sorry to say that is also a question of mine.  I was lucky to own a Stradivarius about ten years ago.  There are many string players who take this chance of trying out this or that, and changing all their lives to the extent that they’re changing instruments every year, keeping two of them and changing among them all the time.  They sell that one and buy another one.  I don’t like that so much.  It mixes me up with my work on the instrument.  Especially to a young player before he messes around for three years deciding which instrument he shall buy, selling and buying and trying and selling and borrowing, I
’d say to practice!  That’s always the way to get a good result with an instrument.  Certainly it is difficult and certainly it is very expensive.

BD:    Once you get to a certain level of instrument, is it almost irrelevant which one you are playing as long as it is consistent?

HS:    No!  Certainly not!  It might be that even a bigger name of an instrument might not fit this or that player.  Objectively it could be that a Stradivarius doesn’t sound as good as Goffriller* (or whatever the name would be), so certainly there is a deal of trying out and looking.  When I bought the Stradivarius, I had about ten instruments which were available to me which were in the price range of what I was looking for.  I was quite fast in reducing these ten to two.  The other one was a Guarnerius, and so I tried quite a long time on the two instruments.

BD:    If you had unlimited resources, would you just simply have settled on both?

HS:    These days probably not because the decision was so clear at the end.  The other instrument I probably wouldn’t have played very much.

BD:    What is it about the Stradivarius that grabs you?

HS:    The combination of many things, certainly.  For example, French instruments are sometime very powerful and very clear, and Vuillaume** (who copied Stradivarius) was very successful in producing bright instruments which projected very well.  But this is only one aspect.  Clarity and power are very important, especially for a cellist who plays with orchestra... or with piano as well.  So certainly any muffled tone, or nice but too soft a tone would be excluded at the first sign when you have the choice.  Maybe more important is the distinctive character of a certain instrument.  It is like which kind of piano [softness] is possible on each string and in which keys.  All these things come into play when you try them out.  That is very personal.

*Matteo Goffriller (1659–1742) was a Venetian luthier, particularly noted for the quality of his cellos.

Although it is known that Goffriller was born in Brixen, little else is known of him prior to his days in Venice, that is before 1685. He was active between 1685–1735 and was the founder of the "Venetian School" of luthiers, during a time when Venice was one of the most important centers of musical activity in the world.

Goffriller's cellos had been erroneously attributed in the past to the Guarneri family, Carlo Bergonzi or even Antonio Stradivari and were virtually unknown until the 1920s, when they began to be discovered. The 1733 Goffriller cello once owned by Pablo Casals was originally attributed to Bergonzi. His earliest authenticated instrument is a viola da gamba dated 1689.

Goffriller arrived in Venice in 1685 to work for luthier Martin Kaiser (Caiser). In 1685 he married Martin Kaiser's daughter Maddalena Maria Kaiser (Caiser), at the Madonna delle Grazie in Venice; she bore him twelve children (five boys and seven girls) in 26 years. Francesco Goffriller, long thought to be his brother, according to recent research actually was his son. He is believed to have taught luthiers Domenico Montagnana and Francesco Gobetti in addition to Francesco, and died in Venice in 1742.

*     *     *     *     *

**Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume (7 October 1798 – 19 March 1875) was a French luthier and winner of many awards. He made over 3,000 instruments and was a businessman and an inventor.He  was born in Mirecourt where his father and grandfather were luthiers.

Vuilaume moved to Paris in 1818 to work for François Chanot. In 1821, he joined the workshop of Simon Lété, François-Louis Pique's son-in-law, at Rue Pavée St. Sauveur. He became his partner and in 1825 settled in the Rue Croix des Petits-Champs under the name of "Lété et Vuillaume". His first labels are dated 1823.

In 1827, at the height of the Neo-Gothic period, he started to make imitations of old instruments, some copies were undetectable.

In 1827, he won a silver medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition, and in 1828, he started his own business at 46 Rue Croix des Petits-Champs.

His workshop became the most important in Paris and within twenty years, it led Europe. A major factor in his success was his 1855 purchase of 144 instruments made by the Italian masters for 80,000 francs, from the heirs of Luigi Tarisio, an Italian tradesman. These included the Messiah Stradivarius and 24 other Stradivari.

In 1858, in order to avoid Paris customs duty on wood imports, he moved to Rue Pierre Demours near the Ternes, outside Paris. He was at the height of success, having won various gold medals in the competitions of the Paris Universal Exhibitions in 1839, 1844 and 1855; the Council Medal in London in 1851 and, in that same year, the Legion of Honour.

A maker of more than 3,000 instruments—almost all of which are numbered—and a fine tradesman, Vuillaume was also a gifted inventor, as his research in collaboration with the acoustics expert Savart demonstrates. As an innovator, he developed many new instruments and mechanisms, most notably a large viola which he called a "contralto", and the three-string Octobass (1849–51), a huge triple bass standing 3.48 metres high.

He also created the hollow steel bow (particularly appreciated by Charles de Bériot, among others), and the 'self-rehairing' bow. For the latter, the hair purchased in prepared hanks could be inserted by the player in the time it takes to change a string, and was tightened or loosened by a simple mechanism inside the frog. The frog itself was fixed to the stick, and the balance of the bow thus remained constant when the hair stretched with use.

He also designed a round-edged frog mounted to the butt by means of a recessed track, which he encouraged his bowmakers to use; other details of craft, however, make it possible to identify the actual maker of many Vuillaume bows. The bows are stamped, often rather faintly, either "vuillaume à paris" or "j.b. vuillaume".

Other innovations include the insertion of Stanhopes in the eye of the frogs of his bows, a kind of mute (the pédale sourdine) and several machines, including one for manufacturing gut strings of perfectly equal thickness.

BD:    These are all things you hear in your ear, rather than feel in your fingers?

HS:    They’re both.  It’s very funny that you say that because it has to do with resonance and with answering problems or qualities.  It’s very often so what you hear, but also what you feel.  I don’t mean the playability.  It doesn’t mean that when it’s easy to play then it also sounds very well.  It would be a funny dead feeling on a certain note which you feel in your finger as well as hear in your ear.  By the way, that also happens when you just don’t play well.  [Both laugh]  It’s not always the fault of the instrument!.  Therefore I say it’s always very good to practice instead of looking around at a hundred different instruments!  In a similar way, a very clear and wonderful feeling doing a certain movement with the bow or with the left hand producing a certain note, lets you feel it works well as well as when you have the result in the ear.  Certainly the result in the ear is more important, and it can happen that with a less well and comfortable feeling you might produce a very nice sound.  But again, this is very personal.  Just as we talked about deciding and buying, this is a process which then starts again when you have decided to buy the instrument.  I would say I took at least a year or two in certain pieces and in certain things before I could say that I now know what I can do on the instrument.  This also means now I know what the instrument wants me to do, which is also an important point!  These wonderful or very precious and great instruments very often tell you very clearly what they don’t want, and they influence your playing as well.  You are able to do what you want, but you also learn what the instrument wants from you.

BD:    Is the same instrument going to be able to produce the sounds that you want in early music and in romantic music and contemporary music?

HS:    Very interesting question!  Let’s say from a Beethoven sonata to a very contemporary piece, the technique which has been developed.  The way an instrument today is made in terms of sound posts, strings, bridge, all that has changed through the centuries. 

schiffBD:    Even the glue?

HS:    The glue might be the same, I don’t know, but a very, very dramatic thing like the fingerboard and like the bass bar, things which really make a big difference to the general kind of sound an instrument produces, changed very much.  It is from the beginning of this century or end of last century that we get what we now call ‘modern instruments’.  A Stradivarius we use as a modern instrument; we don’t use it as it was built.  That would be the baroque set-up of such an instrument, which we then call ‘a historic violin’, or a ‘period instrument’.  It’s funny, our Stradivarius, Guarnarius, all these old Italian instruments are not at all what they were when they were built.

BD:    They’ve been altered?

HS:    They’ve all been altered, not only a hundred years ago but also two hundred years ago.

BD:    Have they been altered for the better?

HS:    That’s your decision.  It is impossible to play the Tchaikovsky concerto on the baroque violin with a baroque bow, and that might be a Stradivarius, yet it’s wonderful on a Stradivarius because of what we now have done to the Stradivarius.

BD:    So then is it the genius of Stradivarius then to have a transcended the age?

HS:    No, I would say it is not even the genius of the man who changed the instruments.  It’s just development in hearing attitudes and how, during the centuries, the approach was to what an instrument should sound like.  Certainly it is possible to play today on a modern Stradivarius the Tchaikovsky concerto as well as it is possible to play a Bach solo partita.  Then it becomes very much your own opinion about old music.  You might say no, you can’t hear Bach on a modern violin, like a pianist might say he can’t hear Bach on a modern concert piano because you would prefer the Hammerklavier or an old instrument in the original baroque set-up.  What I do is more a musical, stylistical statement than about instruments as we know how these instruments worked and how we can play them.  I played baroque cello when I was a student, and we have a lot of information from a lot of written sources of these days about what one did on stringed instrument as well on a keyboard.  So it is actually funny, but it is possible on this 1698 Stradivarius, which is now made to be a modern
romantic instrument, to play the way so it sounds a little bit better than it did sound three hundred years ago as it was originally set up.  This one does, anyway.  Many people say when we play modern instruments we just do what this modern instrument tell us, and what the tradition of the last fifty years was of how to play Bach.  I’m interested particularly in early music styles when I play early music, and probably my cello playing has nothing to do with Stradivarius or non-Stradivarius, but the way I articulate, the way I use the bow, the way I use vibrato, and all these things.  I try to look back and find a way of playing and sounds which probablyonly probably, we don’t know for sureare more to that period than what normally is done, or the way we just played in the last fifty years in fact.

BD:    Is it right to have the same notes, the same pitch and duration, and the same interpretation for ears that have come through most of the twentieth century now? 

HS:    Certainly a very good question.  We tried to trace back what would have happened in those days, and we read what they say about it.  We
’re certain about how an instrument was set up and we have gone ahead and transformed it to what we think should be done by obeying these sources.  So we already think as somebody who lives today, who is a result of the last hundred years including what our ears went through.  The danger is that normally your question leads to the decision made by many musicians that we can’t do anything anyway, and so they don’t care.  I think this is wrong.  For example, a modern symphony orchestra plays a Mozart symphony, and what we hear today with Mozart is what has developed over the last three hundred years, so we just do it.  That is just short-sighted.

BD:    It seems it’s abdicating the responsibility.

HS:    Exactly, exactly.  It’s just because somebody wants to be comfortable and doesn’t want to take the challenge or make the effort.  It’s a shy way to take these decisions.  Certainly, for all these reasons we mentioned, if you go into it you find a vast field of open questions.  Then you have to answer them as good as you can objectively, but certainly so that it stays subjectively.  Then you don’t like to take the risk.  We get in a very difficult position, and that way you just say, okay, better not go into it.  It went very well the last hundred years like this and so why should I?  I don’t like that.

BD:    Obviously you have answered these questions for yourself.  Do you continually re-ask these questions?

HS:    Sure, sure!  From one point, every performance is a re-asking of that question.  You practice the concerto again for this performance, you did the performance, and not only do you hear reactions from people, you might be lucky to hear a tape... or maybe very unlucky to have to hear the tape!  [Laughs]  But for the next time, this process of working again on it, having played it on stage, is such a strong impression on yourself if you are a conscious person.  If you just dream on stage, it’s not very strong, but if you take all your interests
your brain, your heart, your earsyou will not be able to play the next performance identical to the one you just did because this performance was a statement, and you did ask questions.  Maybe the performance also answered some, so the next one will be a next step in that process. 

BD:    You wouldn’t want to next performance to be a duplicate of the previous one?

HS:    If you are stupid enough and if your brain is stiff enough, then you might think that you have one concert, and this is the one concert and nobody can change it.  I don’t want to change it, so I try to duplicate it at every performance because it’s so good!  There are musicians like that, I fear. 

schiffBD:    That’s too bad.

HS:    Yes, I think so too.  [Both laugh]

BD:    So you use as much of your intellectual brain as your musical brain in each performance?

HS:    Certainly you do.  The other part of the answer is that all your own playing, your own work, your own listening, your own producing is what influences your next performance, and certainly the sources of where you can get regional information are all these books.  A pianist has The Art of Piano Playing by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, which is a very hard book to read, a long book and a thick book.

BD:    Sounds like the Chicago phonebook!

HS:    Like the Chicago phone book, exactly!  [Both laugh]  Then it is impossible to play Bach or Mozart as you did before, even if you’re playing a different instrument.  This is one source, a very well-known source.  The Leopold Mozart Violin School is also a source.  Every week there is one more source if you take interest in what certain people who, as a profession, deal with old manuscripts and with old books, who try to find them, or to read them, or to reconstruct them, or to reprint them, or to publish them.  If you go a little bit into that field, you find that you have such an incredible amount of information that you just say you don’t want to know!  If you say that, you will never get more information.

BD:    Is all this information corroborative or conflicting?

HS:    It’s certainly conflicting, and it’s also very funny.  I just read a book about ornamentation of Mozart, which is again a Chicago phonebook thing.  It is very much in conflict with many things you have heard about this appoggiatura and this kind of trill, and so on and so on.  So it would be very wrong to say we don’t know anyway because even they are controversial.  No, you must go into it, and use it like you learn a language.  Like you as a person get encountered with people, you are a child and you learn to know your parents.  You learn to know what is love.  Maybe you learn about love and about hate.  You learn to know that with another person.  A contradiction then means you don’t want to know any more about love because obviously it’s always wrong anyway... or you are lucky enough to take another path in life, and learn and change. 

BD:    So it’s this constant assimilation of everything?

HS:    Absolutely!

BD:    You’ve wrestled with this, and you’ll continue to wrestle with this day in and day out for your performances.  How much of this knowledge and understanding do you expect on the part of the audience that comes to hear tonight’s performance of Haydn or Dvořák?

HS:    If I would see that as a strong point, I would probably got stuck!  Certainly all I do, all I practice, all I play, all I want to learn is in order to play it on stage because I play on stage.  I should look it because that is my knowledge for my better playing, for my better understanding.  The only thing which actually goes directly to the audience is something which I would call ‘conviction’, or the more I am strong in what I do.  Even if I don’t take a decision, I know I would like to take one, and if I know all the aspects why I don’t take that or this decision, it’s already a process of developing of possibilities.  Even if my decision is that the appoggiatura starts upwards and not downwards, maybe I would make the same decision after having thought about it.  The other one sounds the same, but without the process is less strong.  This is a philosophical attitude.  You could say this is all nonsense, or that sounds very interesting.  You want to hear those things.

BD:    There is something about playing it with, as you say, conviction.

HS:    I heard Yehudi Menuhin with a young student in a TV masterclass
which is a difficult thing for both of them, for everybody, especially the music!  He was asking about a virtuoso figure in the Bartók concerto, and inquired if the student knew what notes he was playing.   The student played them and Menuhin asked if the student knew that those notes were from the main theme.  Obviously the student didn’t know, so Menuhin said to play the figure slowly and then play the theme.  He asked if the student saw that it links together.  Until then, the student thought it was just virtuoso passage.  So who is the better for the concerto — the one who knows the connection, or the one who plays cleaner and more powerful?  He didn’t say it, but I could see that Menuhin insinuated that he might think about it.  Then he said something wonderful.  He said, You might ask why that is necessary.  It is necessary because it works like telepathy.  If you know, you are stronger.  If you are stronger, you reach the audience.  Certainly the audience doesn’t know that you know that these notes are in the theme.

BD:    But also that theme is going to come back, and they will feel it.

HS:    That’s it, and that’s why telepathy works when you do something strong, something with conviction, something with countenance, not just something like a virtuoso passage.

BD:    Isn’t all of music really a telepathic kind of argument?

schiffHS:    That’s what I mean, certainly.  That was just an example.  But that goes to all these things.  We spoke about the intellectual background to mainly older music.  You can also take a little piece like the Vocalise of Rachmaninoff or the Liebesleid of Kreisler.  It’s not only what you do and how you vibrate, and what kind of instruments you play, and what kind of wonderful dark sound your G string does, it is what you think, it is what you feel, and if that is sincere and strong, then that is the result of your human being, of your knowledge, of you trying to be a human being.  All that!  That is will convince.

BD:    Is this what makes the difference between just a good performance and a really magical performance?

HS:    I’m absolutely sure that’s it!  Sorry to say a misunderstanding with that word, because I know that an audience, as a mass of people, is easily to be misled.  Sometimes a magical performance in the mind of the listeners is something which was not magical but a very clever show.

BD:    They’re duped?

HS:    Yes.  That’s a very hard thing to talk about, and I’m sometimes very sad when I see it.  As I’m professional and I know the tricks, I know how a performer can captivate the audience without meaning it sincerely, just for the sake of captivating them.

BD:    So then they’re doing the right things for the wrong reasons?

HS:    Exactly!   Yes, they do the right things.  They get there but with the wrong contents, the wrong aim let’s say.  I know a composer who very often gets hard criticism about the taste of his music because he’s very flashy and very much of the taste of the people. He says,
I’m not in a position to argue about my taste or style.  As long as people love my music, I know why I’m right!  That’s a terrible statement for arts.

BD:    That’s the thing for the moment?

HS:    That’s the thing for the moment for the success today, and it is without meaning, without content, and without aim... if there is an aim.

BD:    [Being the Devil
’s advocate]  You’re playing a concert today.  Are you not trying for a success today because that music is then in the minds of the listener from today?

HS:    It’s very hard to say.  If I now were condescending, I would have to say no, I don’t want the success of the evening.  That’s certainly wrong and would not be honest.  It’s the question of my whole life as a musician, and the thing I have to work on is to convince the audience what I think is the right thing which should be expressed through the music.  It should enrich the people, and I should trust that this kind of success is what the music is made for.  I know that probably if you stick very strictly and honestly to this conviction, who will be not as successful as the man who wrote Jesus Christ Superstar, because he did more – or less!  But he made more money!  We have so many examples of people who are obviously honest music makers, and are very successful.

BD:    Let me cut through to the heart of the matter then.  What is the purpose of music in society?

HS:    That was a good question we obviously touched on!  There are many things to describe that.  I start with an emotional one.  Art is a conversation, and architecture is a part of art.  Before it comes to the point, architecture asks for the form, for the contents.  Can I sleep in this room?  Can I make the food in that room?  Art asks for abstract things, which obviously play a role in people’s mind as much as eating and drinking.  Architecture is not an abstract art because without eating and drinking you starve.  But only eating and drinking also doesn’t work because you have to live your full life!  So this is the abstract ingredients of music.  There is a book by Hermann Hesse, Der Glasperlenspiel [The Glass Bead Game], and the whole book only talks about the kind of spiritual games.  It is, in a very abstract way, a book about art, and a book about spirit and brain.  The monks, or the people who work on that spirituality, are absolutely happy as a whole human being with constructions of thinking, with irrational imagination in the brain, and so on and so on.  So this is a part of art.  Certainly the other part goes more to the emotional side.  Look, for example, at what Beethoven combined in his music as an architectural personality.  He was dealing with form which leads directly to an emotional impact to deal with the form, to destroy the form, to expand the form, to change the form.  All this had a social meaning.  It was also expanding or destroying or attacking social life, or wrong human thinking, or wrong human feeling.  Mozart was a composer who, to an immense extent, expanded and stretched the music forms and contents and techniques of his time, but not as a revolutionary.  He was very much d’accord [in agreement, or in sympathy] with the life of his time.  He suffered very much, and he was probably a very complex and difficult personality, but not this kind of anti-bourgeois attacking person like, for example, Beethoven.  He used another form of art, another form of speaking to people.  I would even say there are probably composers who, from dealing with architecture and their own fantasy and their own inner stresses which then are adapted to what a form is, and what they do with that form, how they use it, how they destroy it, might not consciously know that they also are producing or taking part in the social process by doing that.  But they do it as an instinct of an artist; that art means to be controversial, and make that as a very important point.  Art can’t follow the people’s taste to the pleasure of the box office.

BD:    But you don’t feel that the art should simply go contrary to what people are expecting or wanting just to stir up the emotions?

HS:    You mean, as Ken Russell would say, it should
Kick them in the ass!”  I would say that is a possible aspect, and I would not say that if a painting or a play or a piece of music would only go in that direction.  It is bad because of that, but certainly art is not only that.  As we are musicians now talking about music, my opinion is that in music, especially classical music, there is a lot more kicking done, and very much more in that way by the composer than we normally hear by musicians who are smoothing this music up and evening it to the easy pleasure, which is a very strong point in today’s music making.  Even as we have so much information, it’s astonishing that a Mozart symphony is still is used as a warm-up in a concert of an orchestra.  The real thing, the Tchaikovsky symphony comes for the second part.  Actually, a Mozart symphony should be so exciting and demanding for the listener that one couldn’t hear a Tchaikovsky symphony afterwards.  It’s impossible!

BD:    The Mozart should blow you away?

HS:    Absolutely, and you should build a program where you do a Mozart piano concerto and then a symphony.  But if you do an overture, a Mozart symphony, and then a Tchaikovsky symphony, that is a crime to the Mozart symphony.  The only way you can do it is that you do it the Mozart symphony wrong.  Then it works!  I hope nobody does it that way at the Ravinia festival.   I didn’t see the program so I don’t mean to insult anybody!  [Much laughter]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You play all over the world.  Are the audiences and their expectations different from city to city, and country to country?

schiffHS:    Generally not.  There are funny stories like ‘when you play in Italy, they will scream for minutes’.  Not at all!  The chamber music audience in Rome is the same as you would probably expect in Gothenburg, because there you would think they are the cool, northern people who probably don’t dare to show their emotions.

BD:    Would they not scream and holler? 

HS:    They might in Gothenberg, and in Rome they might be so fine and maybe so old that they don’t scream anymore!  It depends which kind of society, which kind of club, which kind of promoter in what city does the music.  Audiences can be varied in age, varied by profession even in a prime orchestral concert where not all subscriber’s society is holding the tickets.  If you have this kind of ‘open for everybody’ group, you find a mixed audience, which is normally the best audience, and this you find all over the world.  Actually, it is not always this way and does not happen very easily.  I’m not always happy with audiences.

BD:    Are you conscious of that audience when you’re playing?

HS:    Yes, very, very much.  It’s very interesting that you don’t know why and how, and it has nothing to do with the length or loudness of the applause.  During the playing you already feel what kind of tension, what kind of attention, if the audience is prepared to get informed or get moved or get attacked, or if they want to stay with their ‘pleasant feelings’.  Sorry to say, many people go to the concert after a hard day
’s work and want to have a nice time.  If they are cultured, they don’t go to the bar or the cinema, they go do a classical concert. 

BD:    Maybe it would be better if they went to a soccer match, or something like that?

HS:    Exactly, or someplace to shout.  That really relaxes people.  There are many other things which are relaxing as well!  A concert should not be the place where you lean back and enjoy.  This does not mean that many places and many
musics cannot be enjoyed, but it’s not the main purpose of a Beethoven symphony to make people happy. 

BD:    Then where is the balance between this artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

HS:    It very much depends on what you play.  For example, if you play a Paganini concerto, I don’t think that is  bad music.  It is just like a different occupation when you consider Paganini as a composer and Beethoven as a composer.  I like to hear Paganini if it is well played.  It’s wonderful.  It’s something like looking at a circus artist who does something very, very hard very, very well.  In the Beethoven Violin Concerto there are also difficult spots, which should be done circus-wise very well.  It makes no sense to say you don’t care about the triplets, you don’t care about the octaves because that has only to do with the circus.  That’s nonsense because Beethoven knew a violinist was somebody who played the violin very well. 

BD:    So he included the need for a brilliant technique?

HS:    Sure!  He had that in mind, and if you take a Beethoven violin concerto or a piano concerto, I know there are statements similar to the Paganini concerto.  But in Paganini, you only find rituals of glamor.  If you take a Beethoven concerto, every note has it architecture.  He knew he wrote for a violin, so he has a scale which is not necessarily a part of the composition or of the structure, but it’s for the violinist.  You have to find the balance.  That’s the art.

BD:    Now we talk about the violin and we talk about the piano.  What about the cello?  There seems to be a smaller amount of repertoire.

HS:    If we talk about Mozart, certainly that is quite limited!  The cello repertoire is certainly smaller than the violin and piano repertoire.  But first you must ask the question, which pianist plays all his repertoire?  Which violinist plays all his repertoire?  Nobody.  It’s impossible.

BD:    Do you play all of your repertoire?

HS:    If I would exclude Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn because I think my style is better with Beethoven and Brahms, then I’m in trouble.  Actually, my opinion is that every musician should be interested in every style because there is no single style without relation to other stuff.  But if a cellist were to do that he would be very unwise.  It’s natural to take interest in different styles, so that means that if you then don’t exclude any age, you have a lot of repertoire.  Even playing in certain cities, within five years I might give, let’s say, four recitals, and I don’t get into trouble with what kind of music I should play.  There is so much, especially me.  I’m interested not only in the Elgar concerto but I also love Saint-Saëns’s concerto.  I even play Saint-Saëns No 2!  I play Vieuxtemps concertos, which no cellist ever played.  It’s very funny.  They were printed and I didn’t find them in hidden anyplace.  I found them in the library!  Or if you look at composers of the classical-modern style, between Prokofiev and Martinů the repertoire could fill hundreds of CDs.  It’s incredible!  Three sonatas of Martinů for cello and piano, two variations works, four cello concertos, two concertos for cello and small ensemble...

BD:    Are you grateful to some of these twentieth century composers for expanding the repertoire for the cello?

schiffHS:    Certainly!  It is obvious, especially in the last thirty years, and as I play avant-garde music, some of which is composed for me, that there is a very big change for the sake of the cello.  There are many fewer piano and violin concertos in the last thirty years than cello concertos.  [Remember, this conversation took place in July of 1989.]  If you look at certain composers, Lutosławski wrote a cello concerto already in 1970, and it took him nearly twenty more years until he did a piano concerto.  He did not write a violin concerto yet but just a shorter piece three years ago for violin and small orchestra.  Penedrecki wrote two cello concertos, one violin concerto [for Isaac Stern, and another would be written in 1995 for Anne-Sophie Mutter], no piano concerto [until 2002], and so on, and so on, and so on. 

BD:    So we’re coming into the glory days of the new cello repertoire?

HS:    If you like the music!  I wouldn’t say that every one of these pieces is glorious, but actually the ones I mentioned, yes.  But there are many, many pieces that probably won’t survive.

BD:    At least they get a chance!

HS:    They have a chance, certainly!  But as to the cello, Rostropovich is a very strong reason for that.  It is the lucky world of music, the lucky world of cellists to look at a man who was super-star for many, many years, and did not exclude contemporary music from his repertoire.  There is one pianist of this kind of fame, Maurizio Pollini, who takes a strong interest in contemporary music.  But he is very limited in his repertoire.  I mean this in a very nice way since he concentrates on very few works, with few concerts every year... not like Rostropovich who is workaholic, who likes to play a lot, and who likes to commission ten pieces every year.  Now he’s reducing it a little bit, and he’s also conducting.

BD:    He should give some of his commissions to you!

HS:    Sure!  I have enough!!!  [Both have a huge laugh]  But actually, we were lucky he was so active and interested in getting this.  I’m sure Benjamin Britten would not have written a cello concerto if he wouldn’t have met Rostropovich.  Who else would have asked him these days?  Who was such a strong personality as a composer that he would say,
Oh, I must write for Rostropovich!”?   Look at the violinists.  Which contemporary piece has been done?  I love Nathan Milstein, I adore Milstein, but which contemporary violin concerto did he commission?  Henryk Szeryng commissioned one or two Mexican concertos and I think that’s it.  This short piece of Lutosławski was written for Anne-Sophie Mutter, so it needs personality, and this personality must be particularly interested in contemporary music.

BD:    If someone is going to write a cello concerto for you, what advice do you have for that composer?

HS:    It depends very much what language this composer speaks.  Probably no composer will write a cello concerto for me whose music I don’t know because there will be a kind of acquaintance before it comes to the deal.  So that means it’s got to be very, very different to whom I speak.  I will have to trust that this man knows the cello.  Certainly every composer is interested.  When he writes a concerto, he wants to know the player, or he wants to know the repertoire.  What is incumbent and what is generally always a difficulty with the cello is a very unsensational and very common problem, and that’s the balance.  One has to tell the people that just because
Dvořák did it and it seems to work, you must find a way to do it.  It doesn’t work in the Dvořák, so please don’t repeat the mistake!  It doesn’t work in the Schumann either!  The size of orchestras today can be immense, and with all this battery instruments there is a big, big danger for the cello repertoire.  Actually it’s funny.  I had very often the experience that a composer says that he knows, yes, so oh no, don’t tell him.  This he really knows!  Then it comes to the first time I look at the score, and there are three clarinets, and all the violas are mezzo forte, and the first violins have a trill, and the cellos have these sixteenths above that, and there is the horn solo, and now I have a virtuoso figure.  I wonder if I will be heard.  The composer assures me that the horn is only mezzo piano, the trill is in a totally different register than the cello, and while the cellos are in the same register as you he has written them pianissimo.  He insists that it all must work, but it doesn’t.  It’s not a very interesting problem but it’s a very, very important problem.

BD:    Is there any hope?

HS:    The best hope is that from a bad experience the one composer will change it next time.  It’s certainly also a problem of what kind of piece is desired.  It might be that the composer says that it’s difficult but he wants to use me as a cello soloist, not as glamorous sound rituals, but to integrate me into the orchestra.  Okay, fine, I understand.  But now still he must be careful!  Why am I sitting there and people only watch me moving and not hear me?  A serious composer today would say he’s not writing this kind of Khachaturian concerto when the cello always has the sixteenths and the strings do certain rhythms which always works balance-wise.  He will do a symphonic work.  Fine, wonderful!  I also don’t like the Khachaturian concerto!  I did like it as a child but not anymore.  But that’s the difficulty with our instrument, and actually I’m talking about the orchestra.  It is also a big problem with the modern piano, because the modern concert piano has changed so much from what we started with.  It has changed so much in terms of sound and size.

BD:    In a recital with piano, do you play with the lid completely down or up on the small peg?

HS:    The lid is only a little thing when it comes to loudness.  Actually the down lid muffles the sound, rather than making the problem easier.  The problem is compounded because if Beethoven writes all these repeated chords as we know as it sounded on a Hammerklavier, then together with the cello it was never a problem.  With open or closed lid you only have two possibilities.  When you do it one way, it doesn’t have any impact anymore.  An accompanist can help the cellist but kill the piece, or the pianist will play the chords more loudly and you are in danger.

BD:    A violinist will stand and be above the piano.  The cellist is seated and the sound comes from underneath.  Does that make any difference in the balance?

HS:    No, because the cello will focus the sound upwards.  That’s not the difference.  It’s the register and the kind of sound.  The violin is much brighter, not only because of being higher but the sound is more focused because it’s smaller.  The cello is beautiful and warm but not so transportable.  The Beethoven sonatas still work, but it’s just very, very difficult to find a pianist who combines these difficulties
to be clear and skillful but not kill you.  It’s as big a problem as with a full orchestra.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Here at Ravinia you’re also working with young cellists, and advising them.  What kinds of advice do you find yourself giving to young cellists?

schiffHS:    I couldn’t say anything in general.  It is so particular.

BD:    You have to guide each student individually?

HS:    Each personality of each piece, and each background of the person.

BD:    Do you tell them how to practice?

HS:    Which is an important point, yes!  [Much laughter]  In general, besides every artistic interpretation of a piece, this is a point which I try to take very seriously.  The way to practice and the kind of practicing and how practicing should be linked with what we call ‘artistic interpretation of a performance’ is a big point.  Obviously, many schools and many teachers don’t help young players very much with how to practice.  You hear very often what you shall do and what you shall not do when you play, and how it shall sound.  They teach studies and exercises, but not the link of how you achieve it with what kind of exercise you need in that piece to achieve what you want artistically or interpretationally.  It is obviously a difficult point, but many people don’t even ask.

BD:    You do lots of concerts and recordings.  Do you play differently in the studio than you do for a concert audience?

HS:    Hmmm...  The answer’s funny.  Probably there is a little bit of difference.  I can’t avoid the fact that there is no audience.  I know that I feel there’s no audience, but since I don’t play for the audience as much as I try to play the music, I certainly try to play the music when I do the recording.  That is one strong point, that the music doesn’t change.  What Beethoven wrote is no different if there are people or no people.  It’s always the same when I am the player in the studio with the microphone or in the hall with a wonderful audience. 

BD:    Do you find you can convince a microphone the way you can convince an audience?

HS:    I can try to convince myself.  I can try to make the best musical result of what I think the piece should be.  Glenn Gould said it’s much better if there’s no audience because then he really can concentrate on the playing.  I think that is not only polemic, there is something true behind it.  Not to talk against public concerts but to talk against the attitude that recording is dead or impossible.  There is another thing which also helps. Every player who does a recording normally had hundreds of experiences with audiences, so he knows what playing for listeners means.  Actually what he does when he tries to make the very best result of his musical verve on the piece is always to perform it and not to just know it, and that implicates an audience.  So all these conscious things don’t let me feel differently when I’m in a studio.  The bad point in the studio is that I’m very keen on the mechanical aspect more than in a public performance because I don’t want that little scratch in the first movement.  I have to concentrate very well, and I might do it wonderfully but, sorry to say, it was out of tune, so we try it again.  That is not so terrible in the performance but it’s awful on the recording.  So this is a very practical point, which makes recording quite demanding and makes it a very hard work.

BD:    Do you ever feel that you have to live up to your recording level when you then go out and play in front of audiences?

HS:    When I look at my first
Dvořák recording, which I did nearly ten years ago, I hope that in the last years all my Dvořák performances are better than this recording!

BD:    Do you want to disown that recording?   I trust you don’t want it burned...

HS:    Actually, I wouldn’t mind!  [Both laugh]  Not that I think it’s so awful, but if I would have the chance, I probably will record it again in about two years.  Then the older one will be off the market.  [As of 2015, Schiff has made at least three recordings of this concerto, conducted by Sir Colin Davis, Sir Neville Marriner, and Andre Previn.]

BD:    Will you want a doctoral thesis written on the differences between your early recording and later recording of this particular piece?

HS:    That’s a very, very interesting job.  I was very often interested in this when I heard Szeryng in both recordings of the Beethoven concerto, or Horowitz’s Liszt sonatas, and Glenn Gould’s two sets of Goldberg Variations.  I certainly always prefer No 1!  [Both laugh]  Maybe it is because I think he must be better because he was only forty!

BD:    Did you ever compare the different Casals recordings?

HS:    Especially not Casals, no.  I don’t know why.  I didn’t listen very much, but I never did hear many cello recordings.  I know the main repertoire of the bigger cellists, and I have them all at home, but I would have difficulties making comparisons.

BD:    There are the four different sets of Bach suites by Starker....

HS:    No, I wouldn’t go that far, but not because I’m not interested in Starker.  It is that, for the cello repertoire, I’m not a devoted record listener.  I like to listen to records but mainly non-cello repertoire.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is playing the cello fun?

HS:    [Thinks a moment]  As much as music making and art is exciting, and many exciting things are fun.  It implicates things like scales and double stops, which you have practiced a hundred times already before a hundred different performances, and which you always have to do again, which is no fun at all!  It is just hard work, and you have to be disciplined and sit down and do it in order to do a nice performance.  Then it is a kind of ‘fun’ but  I would say the word ‘fun’ is a little bit difficult because there are many other things which are fun.  Sailing or climbing up a mountain or having a good dinner out is fun.  But maybe what cello playing or what music does to you is even more than fun.  It is fulfilment, or joy, or satisfaction, or a reason to live.  So I would say that it is satisfaction and a reason to live.  I’m feeling that cello playing is what makes me a relatively satisfied person.

schiffBD:    You play solo recitals and you do chamber music and you do orchestral works.  How do you balance your career, and do you prefer one over the others?

HS:    I’m not actually planning in terms of the next season having, say, forty recitals planned, so the rest must be with orchestra.  It seems to be balanced by itself.  I would say I favor a little bit playing with orchestras and a little bit less with recitals.  But I don’t know why, and I’m not against recitals.

BD:    You have no preference?

HS:    I don’t have a preference, not really, no.  It is likely I’d have a preference for Beethoven or Brahms or Lutosławski or Prokofiev, which also would be very difficult.  Then you would say it depends on what conductor or it depends on which pianist, and so on, and so on.  So maybe I’m lucky that it balances by itself so I don’t have to make the decision and find that I do too much of this or too much of that.  Chamber music is different because I’m not very fond of this kind of ‘meet in the afternoon and perform in the evening’ chamber music, which many soloists do.  I don’t think it is enough that everybody knows the piece very well, or is a good player, and then you just can go onstage and play it and try to have fun.   I don
’t do that very much.  We talked earlier about telepathy and conviction.  I try to concentrate on a few chamber music activities, which then I try to take seriously and repeat, rather than try something else.  That means I play with the Alban Berg Quartet, which I have done for fifteen years, since the early days of my career.  I play the Schubert Quintet frequently.  I didn’t add to the Alban Berg Quartet any other quartet in the last years until I got acquainted with the Hagen Quartet.  This was mostly because the cellist was a pupil of mine, and I like them very, very much.  So for one year we did one or two performances, and now we play a little bit more.  Maybe we will do a recording.

BD:    When you’re a guest with a quartet, do you play the first cello part or the second part?

HS:    When I’m a guest, I certainly am the second cello.  The string quartet aspect is such that the two cellos are equal partners, or the second cello is like a basso continuo to the string quartet.  Very often the first cello takes the role of the viola.  The integration of the quartet is very homogenous, with the first cello as part of the quartet, and the guest is the second cello.  That’s the way it is normally done.

BD:    That doesn’t make the little chamber group too bottom-heavy, with two cellos rather than two violas?

HS:    That’s Schubert’s problem!  [Both laugh]  He thought it through very well.

BD:    Where do you go from here?

HS:    Actually to Lockenhaus.

BD:    With Gidon Kremer?

HS:    With Gidon Kremer, just for two days.

BD:    Kramer’s a big favorite here in Chicago.  He’s been here a number of times.

HS:    Good.  Then I have a one-month holiday, and then it starts again with a recital tour in the festivals all over Europe including Salzburg, Finland, and South of France.

BD:    Are you pacing yourself for the long career?

HS:    It is very hard to say yes because that probably would mean I think that in this year or in the next five years I should do that and not this, which I think is impossible.  On the other hand, every successful artist, or conductor, or soloist, certainly has the problem of working too much.  It’s very easy if you think how to control the career is simply don’t do too much!  It’s easy to say that but difficult to do.  To reduce and to not do everything, and to care for holidays, and to plan that before a recording you should not just have enough time to fly into the city but also have time to practice for three days, is already hard.  That is what you really have to do, and that is what takes a lot of years to learn because you always fall into the trap.  You think this is only this, and I’ve only got that travel, and I’m also teaching as you know.  [Speaks like a running commentary on his schedule.]  I have three days teaching, and then I can also practice within these days, and I have to practice this, and this is okay because I’ve already played it a week before, and the other thing is new so I take the main time for that.  [Laughs]  Suddenly you end up with a horrible stress before you go to the airport, and you know you really did not practice this second movement, and so, okay, there is another day after the arrival before the first rehearsal and maybe I’ll have time in the hotel.  But sorry to say the hotel room is not free at 12 but only at 2, so you go to the hall.  No, but the hall is, sorry to say, far away and, anyway, locked!  [More laughter]  [Back to normal speaking]  It’s very hard to learn and to have that kind of control, so if that can be achieved, then you have already done very, very much.  I try to do it this way and am more or less successful!

BD:    Good.  I wish you lots of continued success in performances and recordings.  Thank you very much for spending the time with me today. 

HS:    Thank you very much.


© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at the Ravinia Festival on July 3, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1991, 1996 and 2000; on WNUR in 2009 and 2015; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2009.  This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.